Senate passes bill that paves way for formation of African American Burial Grounds Network

From: The Post and Courier - Adam Parker

Federal legislation meant to better protect Black burial grounds received a major boost this week when the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan bill expected to benefit at-risk sites in South Carolina.

The bill, which authorizes the Department of the Interior to conduct a comprehensive study of Black burial grounds nationwide, paves the way for Congress to establish the African American Burial Grounds Network — a project that would enable historians, archaeologists and preservationists to coordinate efforts, create a nationwide database, receive grant funding and more.

Locally, the initiative would directly benefit Charleston’s Gullah Society, which works to identify, document and preserve Black burial grounds throughout South Carolina.

The Gullah Society was among nearly 60 organizations that submitted a letter of support to House leaders in November last year.

A House bill, introduced in February 2019 by Rep. Alma Adams, D-.N.C., details the project, which would be administered by the National Park Service. It is modeled after two similar projects NPS manages: “We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement” and “The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.”

Because of its history, the effort could have a disproportionately helpful impact in the Charleston region, which has layers and layers of buried human stories that local preservationists are hoping to protect by encouraging city officials to pass an archaeological ordinance.

First discussed formally in 2018, the idea gained support from Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and others but soon fell victim to budget restraints, said Winslow Hastie, executive director of the Historic Charleston Foundation and a party to those discussions. Given the recent construction boom, it’s more important than ever to adopt measures to protect the city’s historic legacy, he said.

“There are untold amounts of archaeological resources being destroyed, and once it’s done it’s done; you’re never going to recover them,” he said.

The purpose of the congressional consent is to empower the National Park Service to coordinate and facilitate efforts “to identify, interpret, preserve, and record unmarked, previously abandoned, underserved, and other African-American burial grounds,” the House bill states.

The Senate’s action Sunday sets the stage, said the bill’s lead sponsor Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

“We know that for too long in too many parts of our country, Black families were blocked from burying their loved ones in White cemeteries,” Sherrod said on the Senate floor. “These men and women were freed slaves, civil rights champions, veterans, mothers, fathers, workers in communities. We need to act now before these sites are lost to the ravages of time or development.”


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